A Critical Leadership Skill: Creating Stretch Goals

A newly minted VP for the company’s New York City district office, Nia was excited about attending the corporate planning meeting and presenting her first set of budget projections and goals. Nia is a high energy achiever, and she was pumped-up about leading her district office to perform at, literally, record-breaking levels in the coming year.

Her goals were bold, ambitious, and creative. Six months later, everything at the New York City district office had gone sideways.

In spite of Nia’s ceaseless enthusiasm and hard work, morale among staff had crashed through the floor and turnover was increasing rapidly. Making matters worse, Nia’s office was falling well short of its goals — goals established by Nia. And that was becoming a point of tension at monthly senior team meetings.

In the Harvard Business Review, leadership development experts Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman report on 19 capabilities that differentiate excellent leaders from average or poor ones. “Establishes stretch goals” is one of those 19 core capabilities.

“It is vital for goals to be perceived by employees as realistic and doable,” said Maren Perry, president and founder of Arden Coaching. “If people conclude that a goal is unrealistic to begin with, they’ll think, ‘What’s the point?’ In fact, overly ambitious goals can actually do more damage than not having any goals at all. You want to establish goals that stretch but do not break your team — goals that make you think, ‘Wow, that’s tough, however, we can do it!”

This concept is also captured in the definition of SMART goals, where “A” stands for attainable — do you have the resources, budget, time, and skill set necessary to make a goal realistic? For more about SMART goals, read Arden Coaching’s “SMART Goals are Still Smart!” and “AIM SMART Goal Setting.”

“There’s no formula,” says Perry. “There’s a fine line between stretch and break. I think it comes down to a combination of business acumen and emotional intelligence — a blend of self-awareness, knowing your team, and understanding what resources are available.”

In her enthusiasm Nia had crossed that line and created goals for her district office that were simply beyond realistic or reasonable. They were seen as such by staff and instantly become demotivating. “Perceptions are just as important as facts,” adds Perry. “If people think a goal is crazy, that’s how it will be treated.”

As an executive coach, Perry knows that stretch goals can be effectively applied to professional and personal development as well. How does an executive or an organization successfully stretch? How do we make a stretch the new normal? 

“In order to reach a new level — something we have not been able to do previously — we probably need to think or do something differently than before. Simply pumping up the numbers doesn’t give people the support or the tools they need,” said Perry. “Executive coaching delivers new tools to use that you didn’t even know existed, changes thinking patterns, and drives behavioral change.”

Coaching bridges the gap — what was previously a stretch becomes doable — in the NEW framework — increasing performance and building success upon success.

To learn more about developing your leadership capabilities and skills, contact Arden Coaching at [email protected] or 646.684.3777.